Commentary

Neuheisel, Chow were without a QB

The coaches' inability to turn around UCLA could be directly tied to the signal-callers

Updated: November 9, 2011, 3:03 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

The exact timing of when the label became permanently affixed to Norm Chow's name is unimportant ... whether it was after he tutored Carson Palmer or Philip Rivers or Matt Leinart. All that matters is that, within the college football world, Norm Chow is a quarterback guru.

Whatever he whispered turned college quarterbacks into NFL gold. It didn't matter the style. Steve Young, his first protege at BYU, excelled as a running quarterback. Palmer is a classic drop-back passer. Rivers has a funky throwing motion. Leinart was a great decision-maker. Chow saw what others did not, then found a way to develop it and help it flourish.

He is humble about his resume and reputation.

"Believe me, it was personnel," he told me earlier this season, when I asked about all the great offenses he's directed.

It is both a standard line and the absolute truth. Because without great talent to mold, you get Chow's three ineffectual seasons as the offensive coordinator at UCLA.

In three years he worked with eight quarterbacks: Ben Olson, Patrick Cowan, Kevin Craft, Osaar Rasshan, Chris Forcier, Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and Nick Crissman.

W
[+] EnlargeKevin Prince
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireBruins quarterback Kevin Prince has performed well this season after coming in relief of injured Richard Brehaut.
Of those eight quarterbacks, only Craft played an extensive role and made it through an entire season without a major injury. Craft, if you've already forgotten, was the junior college transfer whom Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel only decided to recruit because he assumed Olson or Cowan would transfer after spring practice in 2008 if they lost in the competition to be UCLA's starter. Instead, both of them got hurt on the 14th day of spring and Craft was the only healthy quarterback left.

Chow could only shrug and do his best with what he had to work with.

He became a quarterback guru without a quarterback to guru.

The next year things looked up for a time when Prince won the job as a redshirt freshman, but he was constantly injured, still very young and spent most of his time running for his life behind UCLA's porous offensive line.

Last season everything fell off a cliff. UCLA switched to the Pistol offense to make up for its atrocious offensive line play and maximize Prince's skills as a runner. Instead, Prince got hurt, lost his touch as a passer, then got hurt again. UCLA ranked 99th in total offense and 104th in scoring out of 120 FBS schools.

Chow could have continued, but too much had gone wrong and the seat under Neuheisel was already too hot.

"I think it was a case of too many injuries to sustain any level of consistency," Neuheisel said. "Whether it be at the quarterback position, or on the offensive line because of protection issues, it was always like trying to put a band-aid on something, rather than something getting chance to flourish."

Neuheisel effectively fired Chow after last season's 4-8 disaster, first offering him a position as UCLA's tight ends coach that Chow was never going to accept, then helping shepherd settlement talks through UCLA's administration when Chow landed a job at Utah.

They parted as friends, with shared regrets.

"We're disappointed it didn't turn out the way we hoped it would, but it wasn't because of a lack of effort or a lack of teamwork," Chow told me on the night he left in January. "Rick and I are friends. I feel like we worked very, very well together and it's just unfortunate that the results didn't show that."

This week they meet again as UCLA travels to Utah for a game it must win in order to have a chance at playing in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.

Both teams are on a bit of an upswing after losing their quarterbacks to injury on Oct. 8. That's right, the same day. Brehaut broke his leg in a game against Washington State, while Utah's Jordan Wynn suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a game against Washington.

"If nothing else, I guess I prepared Norm for that," Neuheisel joked.

Neuheisel has taken over as UCLA's quarterbacks coach this year. It is a position he has coached at both the collegiate and NFL levels, though he's never earned guru status.

The rationale is easy to understand. The drumbeats for Neuheisel's dismissal were already loud coming into the season. If he was going down, at least he could say he got a chance to do it his way.

"I tried to give Norm his space," Neuheisel said. "You don't want to confuse a guy. ... Sometimes he's hearing the same thing from both of us, but Norm is saying it differently so it gets a different result.

"But as things started going in different directions, I yearned to have that responsibility again. I'm excited to have it now."

While his options are similar to those Chow had last year -- Brehaut or Prince -- Neuheisel has also had the pressure of managing the development of highly touted freshman Brett Hundley, the No. 2-rated quarterback in his class last season.

Hundley has all the makings of a star. He's big, with a big arm. He's smart and poised and athletic. All the raw material a quarterback guru would look for.

He's also a true freshman. The game moves too fast for him still. A year of watching from the sideline would benefit him more than learning on the job.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIBrett Hundley appears to be the future of the position at UCLA and Rick Neuheisel would like to be around to see it.
For Neuheisel the challenge is clear: He must win enough this year to have a chance to coach the best quarterback he's recruited to UCLA next year.

"My concern is, 'Is Brett Hundley ready to play?'" he said. "I do not want to throw him out there to the wolves and have him not ready to know everything that he should know when the lights are on.

"I put Richard Brehaut in there too early a couple of years back and I don't want to do that again until I know a guy is ready, and I have too much respect for the young man and his family and too much respect for the position to put him in there before he's ready."

For now, Prince is UCLA's quarterback. He has played well since taking over for Brehaut. His decisions are simpler, his reads are sharper now that UCLA is playing off its running game better.

Prince has completed 45 of 83 passes for four touchdowns and rushed for 242 yards in four games since taking over for Brehaut. At UCLA, that kind of longevity at the quarterback position hasn't come around all that often lately.

"People only quantify years and say you should've had it done. They don't always look at what happened," Neuheisel said of Chow's time in Westwood.

"If you had four years and you had everything go right, four years would be enough. But the stop-start-stop-start makes the four years kind of insignificant.

"We had some issues with respect to how we were going to do things and what gave us our best chance. But I'm always going to appreciate the fact that Norm didn't point fingers. We didn't get down into the self-pity. We just said, 'Let's fight. Let's figure something out.'"

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.